The grief Americans no longer share

Today, whatever shared national spirit existed in the first weeks of the pandemic has been fractured beyond repair. Most of the only major collective gatherings America has seen since March have been angry street protests triggered by deaths at the hands of police. Meanwhile, the unending duration of the tragedy—every day feels like the 200th replay of the same day in March—makes our grief feel all the more exhausting. We have nothing to unite around, seemingly nothing to do but keep waiting for a vaccine that may still be months away. The sadness and fury are still present, but in 2020 they don’t galvanize; they paralyze.

The 9/11 attacks unfolded, from start to finish, over just 102 minutes, from the first crash to the collapse of the Twin Towers. The government never had a chance to muster a response. During the pandemic, each new day adds to a ghastly death toll that underscores the sense that it didn’t have to be this way. Each new death is the consequence of a botched response, a government that didn’t care enough, and an American population too impatient to demand the necessary precautions.

Far from showing the common purpose evident after 9/11, America is in the grip of a “can’t do” spirit. We can’t test enough people. We can’t open our schools. We can’t return to work. Other industrialized nations have managed to defeat this pandemic. While we watch life in Europe and Asia return to something approximating normal, America is caught in a Groundhog Day loop, with a death toll every three or four days equal to that of September 11. The number of Americans killed by the coronavirus is rapidly approaching 200,000—more than the entire population of Mobile, Alabama, or Worcester, Massachusetts. That tens of thousands more Americans will die before the end of the year seems all but certain.